Power of sound in branding

Sight is a powerful sense, but sound can be even more powerful.

And in marketing, sound is being used more and more in branding campaigns as a way to reach consumers through their computers, MP3 players or iPods, and cell phones. Sonic branding, as it’s called, allows a company to create an auditory identity, leading consumers to equate that particular sound with a particular product or service.

“The consumer is much more available in the sonic interface today,” says Vijaykumar Krishnan, assistant professor of marketing at Northern Illinois University. “You can shut your eyes, but not your ears. Sonic interfaces are always available and, therefore, a sonic branding message tends to work harder. At the same time, it is less obtrusive, allowing consumers to process the brand message even when they are otherwise engaged.”

Smart Business spoke with Krishnan about how to develop an effective sonic branding campaign to create both short- and long-term financial impacts at your company.

How does sonic branding work, and what are the associated benefits and risks?

Sound can be innately suggestive of certain brand situations and experiences. For example, we automatically associate a shutter sound with a camera. Many cell phones produce the pseudo-shutter sound accompanying the click, even though they do not have the shutter mechanism, to create an authentic brand experience. Here, the shutter sound is innately associated with the category so that the consumer experience is fluent. The consumer is not consciously aware of the sonic element. However, a sonic branding element that is not congruent to the product category can attract undue attention and lead to consumer annoyance. Thus, it is important to consider appropriateness of the associated sonic elements.

In what industries would sonic branding be most successful?

Overall, it’s relevant in any situation. However, sonic logos, or ‘sogos’ as I call them to rhyme with logos, might be more beneficial in situations where brand/product visualization is difficult — such as for ingredient brands. For example, the special Lycra stretch in the garment cannot be visualized, but sonic branding may be able to bring it alive and draw attention to that ingredient. Corporate branding, where the brand value is more abstract and intangible, is another strong candidate for sonic branding.

You may also use it in service branding, where services cannot be seen in the same way that a product can be seen, felt or touched. How do you brand the service of a law firm, doctor, hospital, etc.? These are the type of situations where sound brings alive and amplifies the brand experience.

How can a business implement sonic branding and develop a sonic logo?

Keep in mind that the sonic logo will be repeated many times over, so it should be likeable. Research shows that likability is based on the choice and arrangement of the design characteristics, such as the number, nature, quality of the tones and the instrumentation that you use. For example, major intervals might give off a happy mood, while minor intervals might give off a more somber mood. It just depends on the message you’re trying to convey. A law firm might want to create a feeling of dignity and respect, while The Walt Disney Co. might want consumers to feel more exuberant.

You also want to implement the campaign across different forms of media. One needs to keep the synergy going while making some variations consistent with the medium. For instance, the key tones on the cell phone may progressively generate the five tones in the Nokia sogo. You want the consumer to be able to connect the sonic dots in the end, even if the forms of media are different.

One may vary the sonic characteristics in many ways. For instance, one may create a series of tones that are ascending or descending, or vary the number of tones in a sogo to match the number of letters or syllables in the brand name. However, we also want to make sure that our brand sogo is not easily confused with those of other brands. Increasing the number of tones might ease some of this confusion but render it harder to recall. You have to determine how to balance some of these things to create a specific auditory identity for the brand.

What are some key things to keep in mind when developing a sonic brand?

A 30-second commercial could cost anywhere between $200,000 and $1 million, and would have to be aired several times before it has any impact. A considered sonic branding design can lead to fewer repetitions to get to the same level of brand recall, thus influencing the costs. In other words, you want to make sure the design aspect of the sonic logo is taken care of properly because this has financial implications. Further, combining a visual campaign with an appropriate auditory campaign renders the brand more authentic, helping build brand equity.

What impact does sonic branding have on the long-term financial future of a corporation?

If you look at brand equity numbers published by Interbrand each year, many of the top 25 brands such as Microsoft, Nokia and Intel have access to and use a sonic interface. So there is a direct correlation between companies using sonic branding and their financial success.

I find evidence for financial value in my experimental research. My research shows that even for a low involvement product, such as bread, changing the sonic logo attached to the product can increase the consumer’s willingness to pay for that product by 17 percent. Thus, proper design of a sonic brand can have both short- and long-term implications on a company’s financial success.

Vijaykumar Krishnan is an assistant professor of marketing at Northern Illinois University. Reach him at (815) 753-6218 or [email protected].